How to NOT do everything on your to-do list

By Leo Babauta

Reader Jeremy Martin wrote in with this question:

This week, I started the switch to the GTD system. I have mostly learned what I know from your site and other articles about GTD, but I also have the book on order. The mental freedom it has afforded me has been such a major relief! I immediately push out all of the little thoughts that come to my head to process later, which works very well for me because I am a person with a very active mind that never seems to rest. I cannot remember when I have had this much peace of mind.

My problem is that if I have a list of things to do, no matter if they are high priority or personal projects for myself, I feel guilty if I am not working to shrink that list. This can lead to periods of burnout for me, where I barely get anything done. I never know when it is okay to relax, or when it is okay to take a break and play that video game, read a book, or some other leisure activity.

Do you have any tips that might help me out?

This problem is one that many of us deal with, and there’s no easy answer. I have a number of suggestions that might help, but let me first say that they are not from the GTD system — they are things you can add to the system to make it work for you. GTD should be adapted to fit your personal working style — it’s not a cookie-cutter approach. One method doesn’t work for everyone.

Here are my suggestions:

  1. Set 1-3 Most Important Things (MITs) for the day (you might have already read about this on my site) … the top 1, 2, or 3 things that you really want to get done that day. This is an addition to the GTD system, not a part of it, but I find it helps me to focus on what’s important. GTD assumes that you will know what needs to be done, which is true, but it’s helpful to determine that at the beginning of each day, and make sure you get those things done.
  2. Get your MITs done early in the day. Then everything else you do is extra. And if you feel like taking a break and playing, after you do the MITs, you can do this without worrying that you’re not getting important stuff done.
  3. You’ll never get to the bottom of your list. This is something I had to learn the hard way. I would try to clear one of my context lists (like @calls), but as soon as I crossed 2-3 off my list, another 2-3 would pop up. Now, I try to just get my list down to a reasonable number if possible.
  4. GTD isn’t about doing everything on your list. It’s about knowing what needs to be done, so that when you’re doing something else, you know that everything else that needs to be done, at some point, is accounted for in your system, and you don’t need to worry about all that other stuff at this point. In other words, get all that stuff out of your head, and into your trusted system, so you don’t have to worry about it while you focus on the task before you.
  5. It’s also good to schedule time blocks. I will set a block for email and calls, another for writing, another for interviews (a big part of my job), etc … this way, I just try to get as much done in that block as possible, and then not worry about the rest until tomorrow’s block. This is also not a part of GTD, but a useful addition, as GTD doesn’t really advocate scheduling. But without a little bit of scheduling, as you’ve found, it can get a bit stressful, because you never know what needs to be done.

In the end, you can try these methods out, but you’ll have to find what works for you. Some of these tips might work, some might not be for you. It’s our systems that have to adapt to us, not the other way around!